This first book in yet another urban fantasy series follows pretty well-trodden paths. Vampires and werewolves are real, yet live under a veil of secrecy in your present world. A heroine who is a werewolf and has to solve a murder mystery related to her secret world. Seemingly the usual stuff, Vaughn subverts the formula subtly to get a slightly different effect than her peers. This is much more down-to-earth and much less fantasy than most entries in this genre, and I’m not talking about less magic here.
Kitty never wanted to become a werewolf, and while managing to live with it, it’s far from her dream life. Vaughn plays up the more disturbing aspects of the whole romantized (in urban fantasy at least) pack life for werewolves, making it look even in the mildest interpretation as a form of exploitation of the pack members. Unlike the usual strong-willed heroine of the urban fantasy genre, Kitty is pretty weak and dependent. This first book in the series chronicles her journey to a modest form of self-dependence.
While there’s an analogy to females here, who manage to get away from exploitative males, it’s subtly enough to not undermine the main story. Instead, it manages to make the story feel more real, less like a wish fulfillment fantasy that is part of the canon of the genre (which isn’t bad per se, but variations to the formula are always welcome).
Part of her means to break free is doing a radio show on vampires and werewolves and their real life problems, which manages to be cover everything from the sad to the hilarious. This also puts her on the map in an entirely different way, since she’s one of the first to openly admit being a werewolf (not that many believe her, and those who do are kind of crazy anyway). In the show Kitty tries to dispels most of the illusions people might have about being one of the changed and tries to help those who are and have problems due to it.
Her approach is practical and mundane, which makes Vaughn’s book a pretty rare example in a genre where serious speculation about a world where mythological creatures are real aren’t common. Most urban fantasy books merely posits such a world without really going into the real life implications. This mindset makes it feel kindred to the more speculative science fiction out there.
That said, Vaughn manages to hit more than enough buttons typical for urban fantasy to fully appeal to that audience. Whether Vaughn manages to maintain this balance between real life issues and telling a fantasy narrative in further volumes will be interesting to see.
Middle books in a trilogy always seem to pose a problem, but this one was actually pretty strong. Imriel tries to play ball with his queen Ysandre and marries a princess from Alba, following the course of duty instead of his own heart, forgetting that for a D’Angeline they are both the same. As expected, all goes horribly (bloodily) wrong and for the second half of the book Imriel goes on a revenge quest. But like so often with the Kushiel books, even the revenge quest changes into a voyage through strange and unseen lands (obviously Carey has the urge to let her characters explore every inch of her make-up world that partly resembles our own, although this time I wasn’t exactly sure which lands where meant to be replicas of real-world nations) and even the killing at the end of the quest becomes a tranformative event.
It’s a good book. Like all parts of the Kushiel series, despite their big size, it has a pretty low amount of bloat. I had to stop reading the book midway into the revenge quest at the begin of 2010 and only read the rest this month, but only needed a few pages to get back into the grove. So, despite all the stuff going on, all the characters, it’s a pretty accessible read. For a middle book of a trilogy, it’s excellent. Doesn’t feel like filler, but like an essential part of the story.
The biggest plot element introduced in the second season are the Tok’ra (basically good Goa’uld). First mentioned in the 2nd episode of the season, they get more developed in a later two-parter (episode 11-12) and become one of the major allies of the humans during the entire series. We also see more of the Asgard, the second major ally beside the Tok’ra (not yet in this season, though) and with episode 14 (Touchstone) another long-standing enemy of the series gets introduced, a human-based conspiracy that surfaces from time to time throughout the whole series.
The rest were various continuity heavy episodes and stand-alone episodes, although some of those too shed light on the wider Stargate universe. Some good stand-alone episodes were Spirits (that one could have gone too far into the realm of a native American analogy, but managed to come around with a new spin on the posing-as-gods theme that lies at the core of the Stargate series), Message in a Bottle (I loved that one for the concept alone (I like non-humanoid aliens done well) and the optimistic ending despite the deep gap between us and the others), A Matter of Time (another well-done execution of a pretty hard SF concept for a TV-show (what happens when you’ll dial a gate to a world getting sucked into a black hole)) and One False Step (another good SF concept here).
Episode 6 (Thor’s Chariot) introduced a type of episode that became typical for the show as a whole, one that picked up the story from an earlier episode, though it wasn’t completely part of the bigger story-arc (in season 2 the conflict between SG1 and the Goa’uld Apophis). A sort of mini-arc that could stretch over many seasons and explored a specific culture, person or organization. As time went one and the whole series became more interconnected, all those mini-arcs merged back into the on-going meta-arc, but they were structural distinct enough to merit mentioning.
Inevitably, the final episode ended in a cliffhanger, which became par for the course for the entire show. While it drives me crazy in most TV series, as it leaves me with no resolution once the show is canceled midway, since Stargate got closure for both the Goa’uld and later the Ori meta-arc, I didn’t mind (I probably would have if I didn’t knew, though).
I watched the previous TMNT show as a kid and was more than eager to see a more serious take on the subject, which I was led to believe this incarnation of the Turtles would provide (reading reviews and descriptions of the show). Alas, that wasn’t entirely correct.
While a bit stronger in the plot department (multiple levels of plotting, that stretched from multi-part episodes, to seasons and plots covering the whole series) the characterization was just not as good. If the previous TMNT was the kids-version of the turtles, the 2005 TMNT version sadly wasn’t the grown-up version, but the teenager one. The characters exhibited all the emo-like emotions (gloomy, pathos-dripping speeches, endless self-questioning etc.) that get mistaken for maturity by some, but are merely the signs of teenagers growing up and coming to grips with the world around them.
While fitting the age-level of the turtles in the show, I found it annoying enough to stop watching the show around episode 13 of season 4 (teenagers might find it fun to watch, I don’t, since I’m long past that age). Not all turtles acted as annoying, the science guy and the comic book fan were actually fun, but the leader guy and the aggressive one sucked so much joy out of the show, that after some point it just felt like chore to watch.
While pretty much a mere refinement of the first NES Duck Tales with all new stages, this sequel looks decidedly better. The jump in the quality of the graphics is impressive, sometimes this looks like an early SNES game, not just a NES game. Everything looks more vibrant. The gameplay also has some minor tweaks here and there (one key for pogo jumping), but nothing that really changes the basics from the first games. Overall, due to the improvements over the first part, one of the best platformers on the NES. The story (find treasures in five different places, like in part I) is negligible, but the gameplay rules.
What a difference in controls a fine detail can make. The GameBoy conversion of this game allows you to activate the pogo stick with just one button (something they also used in the sequel for the NES). Here you have to activate it via a two-key-combination that never feels natural and often makes you miss activating the pogo jump. If you played the GameBoy game, this is pretty similar, all the same level types, although the levels have a slightly different architecture and due to the bigger screen size look wider and less cramped. But since the backgrounds and the level graphics are less detailed, this actually makes the game look less good than its GameBoy conversion.
That said, it’s still a pretty good, or at least better than average platformer. Considering the countless really awful platformers for the NES, it’s always good to find one who, despite a few minor weaknesses, is fun to play from start to finish. And the pogo jumping mechanic, while not exactly an overly brilliant new platformer element, does change the playing style from similar games.
Found a Patch that fixes the Pogo Stick activation.
During the time when the CD was new and (seemingly) offered unlimited possibilities, it was typical for games to be massively overproduced when it came to secondary elements (e.g. animated movies with fully voiced characters), while the main gameplay remained pretty shoddy. Black Hole Assault is a typical beat’em up where you control robots and fight others robots. The story, while usual fare for science fiction (mini space opera in the solar system with alien robots attacking), is still much better than the rest of the game (e.g. gameplay).
Characters can easily beat their enemies by just finding the one move that works on them and then endlessly repeating it until they prevail. To beat the whole main storyline, you have to just finish six or seven enemies. You can chose from two pretty similar bot designs. While the robots (both your two models and the enemies) are slightly dissimilar, nothing about their design really feels unique or all that different. But the biggest problem is the gameplay, which is just boring.
This is the first increment in a very long career, so I wasn’t expecting the best of the best nor even the usual competent stuff you can expect from any practitioner doing something for very long (and especially with such a high regard as Charles M. Schulz). But what I was expecting was a little indication of his later work. And in that regard I found this first volume of the Peanuts utterly disappointing.
The art is already good (although still a bit bland), but the writing is completely mediocre. There’s really nothing here that stands out, that gives you the impression of good things to come. It’s just a collection of three years of completely boring and utterly trite cartoons (sometimes the punchlines make you go “Huh?!?”, sometimes the cartoon just stops). Admittedly, we all have to learn to walk before we can run, but following that process can be pretty dull.
I’ll try a few volumes more, because I find it hard to believe that someone with this kind of influence and long-lasting effect on other people in the field and readers hasn’t more going for him.
I’m deeply fascinated by how humans can err. I find the topic of human biases, the modes of self-deception, the way our mind malfunctions, especially in the many cases when we aren’t even aware of the defects in our mental architecture, irresistible.
Taleb’s book just presents one of theses cases, how we humans handle (or not really handle) randomness. Which in itself is a rather broad area, that includes many aspects, like how we do not anticipate very rare events with a very big impact (a topic later explored in detail in his book Black Swan), how we faultily generalize, how we misinterpret noise as signal, how we can’t handle probabilities, how survivorship bias distorts our perception and so on.
Even knowing all that, he goes on to show that knowing doesn’t really help. While we may think we act rational, what we really do is react emotional and later find a convincing story why we did it. We see patterns where there are none, because we have been evolved to find patterns. We don’t want to or can’t (emotionally) accept the fact that we live in a universe where luck has at times a much bigger impact, where there are no other explanations aside from randomness.
One strength of the book is just how concrete everything Taleb presents feels. He himself mentions that humans don’t do well with abstract stuff, but stories have a highly catalytic effect that makes it easier for us to get something, so he wraps all the information into an ongoing narrative. His style is pretty lucid and clear, and yet insightful and full of depth.
He’s also very scathing, abrasive and impulsive, but always to get his points across. If you think he’s too hard on certain people, think again. We’ve just barely survived (or are still trying to survive) the impact of a global financial crisis, and yet nothing has changed. The systems in use haven’t been made more robust to handle future catastrophes. All we see is lip-service and a universal shrug of the shoulders. Makes one want to believe in conspiracies, but that’s just another idiocy. We’ve just been fooled by randomness.
I recently read Stumbling on Happiness, which explored self-deception with a very narrow focus. While a pretty good book in itself, I wanted something more broader. I’m more than happy to say that Goleman’s book completely fulfilled my expectations. I remember reading some study results that showed that human life is filled with all kind of lies, deceptions and so on, on a daily basis.
The idealistic, and not very realistic depiction of humans as truthsayers most of the time, with a few of us telling big lies as rare events is pretty much not how it works. But every smartass who assumes that we have to merely be a little more truthful misses the point of why we lie in the first place, why we deceive and in the end deceive ourselves.
Goleman explores self-deception within a broader framework of the human mind and of how consciousness works. While the subtitle of the book is the psychology of self deception, Goleman integrates research from a far wider area, paramount among them biology and its many sub-categories.
What I really like about the book is the absence of any normative and didactic elements. There’s none of the non-sense about how to be a better human being by avoiding lying or self-deception, or why lying and self-deception is a bad thing from a moral viewpoint (there is from a merely practical viewpoint, but that’s different).
Goleman primary sees self-deception as a means that evolved to cope with anxiety. This goes a long way to explain the why (we do it), the how (it works) and finally the reason why normative and didactic approaches completely miss the point. We won’t change our behavior because self-deception is an essential element of how we function.
Goleman does mention the pitfalls (extensively even), since self-deception is such a crude mechanism that can lead to many negative outcomes. But one simple truth is, we won’t stop deceiving ourselves because it’s the right thing. Deeply ingrained, learned pattern of self-deception can’t be erased by just doing the right thing. That takes a little more work.